When Twitter first appeared in July 2006, I was enchanted by it. At one point, some geek created an app that logged tweets and geolocated them in real time on a map of the world, so you could watch little dots popping up all over the globe. (I even made a short video recording of my screen and set it to music, but didn’t put it online because I didn’t own the music rights, and now I can’t find it. Sigh – such is digital life.)
What I loved about Twitter at the beginning was that it enabled you to plug into the thought streams of people you liked or admired. Like all good things, though, that came to an end when the platform embarked on the algorithmic curation of users’ feeds to increase “engagement” (and, it hoped, profits). And from then on, it became increasingly tiresome, though I kept my account. But when it became clear that Elon Musk was going to buy the platform – and wreak havoc – I decided to explore possible alternatives.
Like many other people, my gaze alighted on Mastodon as a possible refuge from the Musk-induced madness. After all, it offered its users the same kind of microblogging facilities. But there the similarities ended. Twitter is a single site. Mastodon, in contrast, is a protocol – “a system of rules for spinning up your own social network that can also interact with any other following the same code”. So whereas Twitter is a universe, Mastodon is what has come to be called a “fediverse” – that is, a decentralised network made up of a large number of semi-independent nodes, or as one observer put it: “A distributed network of Twitter-like services.”
That sounds intimidating, but in reality, it’s relatively straightforward. Joining Twitter involves just signing up on twitter.com; but to become a Mastodon user, you have to sign up to one of those semi-independent nodes. They’re basically just servers run by individuals or groups, and Mastodon helpfully provides a list of ones that you might consider joining. Once in, your identity is linked to the server on which you have an account. So if you’ve chosen the username “vici” on the server arsenalfc.social, then your username will be @firstname.lastname@example.org. And you can follow any other Mastodon user, no matter what server they happen to be on.
From then on, it’s a bit like using Twitter – posting rather than tweeting, reposting, liking and so on. The big difference is you only see stuff that those whom you follow have posted: your feed is not algorithmically curated for some venture capitalist’s benefit. (Mastodon is open source and administered by a German-based non-profit company, Mastodon gGmbH.)
If you’re coming from Twitter, the first thing you’ll notice about Mastodon is that it seems quieter, somehow – there’s less shouting, less aggro, less posturing, less humblebragging. And of course it may also seem duller at first, because you’re only seeing what your “followees” (is that a word?) have posted or reposted. You’ll also notice that if one of your contacts wants to post something that they feel might be shocking or disturbing, they have been able to flag it beforehand so you don’t click on it.
So far, so good. But since this is technology, there are downsides. The most obvious one is that while you are no longer at the whimsical mercy of an erratic digital emperor called Elon, the administrator of your chosen Mastodon server may not be an angel (or a Democrat) either – as one blogger discovered. “I believed the Mastodon propaganda,” he wrote, “and picked out a small site from the list at joinmastodon.org. That small site turned out to be run by fascists and does not allow one to cancel one’s account. I left and moved on to a small political site… which kicked my moderate liberal ass out for being too radical. I then decided that being one bird in a large flock was a good idea and signed up for an account at mastodon.social, the Mastodon mother site.”
So is it a substitute for Twitter? I don’t think so, any more than avocados are a substitute for mangoes. Twitter is really for broadcasting – for letting the world at large know what you think, or alerting people to your forthcoming book/event/podcast, or complaining about potholes, Rishi Sunak, Brexit, the metaverse and the general awfulness of everything.
At its best, Mastodon seems to be more about conversation rather than shouting, and in that sense reminds me of the early internet – in the 1980s, before the world wide web – and in particular of Usenet, the network’s first global online discussion space. In which case, wouldn’t it be ironic if the Martian adventurer Musk’s chaotic ownership of Twitter turned out to be bringing us back to the future?
What I’ve been reading
Freedom of religion
Remembering Pope Benedict’s Challenge is a fascinating editorial in Noema magazine by Nathan Gardels on the late pontiff’s debate with German philosopher Jürgen Habermas about democratic values.
Some really helpful advice on digital security from US cryptographer and technologist Bruce Schneier, who knows this stuff inside out, can be found in the Choosing Secure Passwords post on his Schneier on Security blog.
A Civil War Over Semicolons is an entertaining piece by Gal Beckerman in the Atlantic about the arguments US biographer Robert Caro and his editor, Robert Gottlieb, have been having for 50 years.